In Zion, a 'Heavenly Place' for Hikers, Climbers, Families

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Crossroads' associate editor Judy Koutsky is on a weeklong tour of national parks, starting at the Grand Canyon and extending through several parks in Utah. She is chronicling her adventures with daily travelogues and photos. Her fifth and final installment follows:

Canyon Overlook TrailSPRINGDALE, Utah -- For Grand Canyon buffs, Zion National Park provides a different perspective on the wonders of nature. Most obviously, Grand Canyon visitors stand on the rim and look down, whereas at Zion they view the canyon from the bottom up.

Zion, whose name means, "heavenly place" receives 2.7 million visitors a year and is one of the most visited national parks in Utah. One tends to feel insignificant standing at the base of its towering, red canyon walls, and it's no wonder that this park attracts rock climbers from all over the world. It also makes for outstanding hiking, which is more my speed. This morning, we followed the Canyon Overlook trail where we scaled rocks and trudged up a somewhat steep path, reaching a spot that is commonly thought to provide one the most spectacular views in the park. It was well worth the climb. Overall, the hiking here is pretty rugged, but the lookout points at the top more than make up for a little physical exertion.

After hitting a couple more trails, we decided to give our muscles a rest and take a narrated tram ride through the park ($2.95 per person). Here, we found out how the trees and vegetation are able to grow right out of the rocks (the rocks contain enough moisture to sustain plant life). We also were told that Zion hopes to be vehicle-free by the year 2000. People will have to park their cars outside and take a shuttle bus into the park. Tour buses will have to do the same. They hope this will help to preserve the park's ecosystem.

the Virgin RiverAfter a short lunch at the Zion Lodge, we headed up to Riverside Walk, where the Narrows are located. Hikers from all over the country come to Zion to hike the Narrows, which are no misnomer. It's a trail that leads deep into the canyon floor with 1,000-foot-high canyon walls on both sides. The narrow path offers some of the best views of hanging gardens, waterfalls and sandstone arches. We were planning on hiking just a little of this trail (it's for the more advanced hikers) but nature wasn't cooperating. There were flash flood warnings the day we were in Zion, and the Narrows is one place you don't want to be when it rains. There is nowhere for the water to go, since you're at the bottom of the canyon and the walls are so close together. These crevices fill up in minutes with few escapes for hikers. We decided not to tempt fate and headed for some of the trails on higher ground instead.

Zion was the most crowded park we've hit, with many families traversing the trails or enjoying the sights on horseback. Little kids seemed enamored by monolithic rocks that point to the sky. Zion's a great place for adventure travelers who want to put their physical endurance to the test, and it's also great for families because, in addition to the rugged trails we hiked, there are paved trails, too. One zigzags under a waterfall while another popular one follows alongside the Virgin River.

Bit and SpurFor dinner, we went to the Bit and Spur, a local Mexican restaurant in Springdale, the town immediately outside Zion. The outside patio offered a gorgeous view of the canyon, while the tasty Mexican cuisine fueled the spirit. The wait staff here is friendly, the food comes in large portions and the judging by the crowds, it's a pretty popular place to relax after a long day of hiking. After dinner, we saw a film presentation called "Zion Canyon: Treasure of the Gods." The film, projected on a screen six stories high, tells the story of the Anasazi Indians who dwelled in Zion's cliffs. After watching the sunset reflected on the canyon walls, we headed back to our hotel, Flannigan's. Equipped with a pool, Jacuzzi, restaurant, and only minutes from the park's entrance, Flanigan's is an ideal choice in accommodations for Zioin visitors. Rates start at $49, and the property pays 10% commission to agents.

Lake MeadThe next morning, we rose early to make the most out of our last day. We were told by one of our hosts that we really shouldn't miss Valley of Fire and Lake Mead on our way back to Vegas. If I've learned one thing while traveling it's not to underestimate recommendations of the locals; often, the spot turns out to be wonderfully kept secret. This was no exception. Located about 40 minutes outside Vegas, Lake Mead sits smack in the middle of the Nevada desert, like a mirage that turns out to be real. With temperatures soaring well over 110 degrees, we admittedly were worried about exiting off I-15 to take this detour. About 20 miles into Overton, we saw the lake in the distance. Set in the dry, rocky landscape among cacti, its water was crystal Caribbean blue. By the time we pulled up, we understood why the locals wouldn't want to share this with the tourists. (It's somewhat far off the main highway and the signage is scarce, so tourists aren't lured here.) After taking a relaxing swim to cool off (the heat and humidity were substantial here because of the recent rains), we decided the best way to explore the lake was by motorized vehicle, so we rented jet-skis. Not a bad way to spend a 110-degree day.

We grudgingly left, knowing we had one more stop before heading to the airport. Valley of Fire National State Park is only three miles away from Lake Mead, but it felt like another world. To say it was hot is like saying the Grand Canyon is big. Known for its hiking, petroglyphs and fossilized wood, the park was all but empty today. We stopped at the visitor's center, which had closed an hour before, but a map taped to the door was all we really needed. We located the petroglyph trail and set out with hopes of seeing the cliff markings we had heard so much about. We weren't disappointed. With the sun's intensity strong on our backs, we hiked into the trail until we found the carvings illustrating a time gone by. We sat on the rocks facing the petroglyphs for a while, lost in our own thoughts.

The national parks of the Southwest are both geological and historical wonders. Anyone who's seen their majesty captured in pictures knows this, but those who visit in person walk away with a newfound appreciation of what it means.

Part One: The Grand Canyon's North Rim.
Part Two: Lake Powell
Part Three: Bryce Canyon/Kodachrome
Part Four: More Bryce Canyon
Part Five: Zion National Park/Lake Mead

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